Story by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos by Dave Novick, CDCR TV Specialist
Office of Public and Employee Communications

CDCR’s Office of Business Services (OBS) is seeking any information related to a technological relic they believe once served to connect Folsom State Prison to the outside world.

Received in 2007, an antique telephone switchboard sits on the second floor of OBS. Covered in notes, the OBS staff is asking questions. How old is it? When was it in service? Did it actually come from Folsom Prison?

OBS reached out to Inside CDCR to see what information could be gleaned from the clues on the device. The manufacturer’s mark is Western Electric but there is no manufacturing date.

Rolling up our sleeves and digging around in our historical resources, we found a few ways to try to pinpoint its original service location.

A note on the switchboard lists phone numbers, including the State Police. There are no area codes with the numbers, but the prefix of the seven-digit number is 744. In California, the closest town to Folsom using that prefix is Galt. Others using it are Fremont, Pasadena, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Monica, San Fernando, Granada Hills and Orange.

Western Electric Switchboard 1935 Catalog 551aSome of the names of employees, when cross-referenced, appear to have retired in the 1990s from Paroles and Community Services Division, today known as the Division of Adult Parole Operations.

Looking into the manufacturer’s history, it shows Western Electric made switchboards for Bell Telephone systems from the late 1800s until the mid-1960s.

A 1935 Western Electric catalog shows a very similar model to the one at OBS.

1930s switchboard operator makes headlines

According to news reports from 1933, Sherman Powell was Folsom Prison’s telephone operator.  He factored into a heavily publicized escape attempt by convicted murderer Marty Colson and Lloyd Sampsell, the notorious yacht bandit.

“(They) forced their way into the prison hospital, and from there proceeded to the administration building. Armed with (inmate)-made guns, the two prisoners held up the telephone operator and four other employees in the administration building. They compelled the operator … to call Warden Smith. The warden was asked to come to the administration building immediately on the pretext something demanded his immediate attention,” according to a United Press report published in the Madera Tribune, Feb. 27, 1933. “Sensing something wrong, the warden … summoned guards and surrounded the administration building. … Finally, Sampsell emerged. He was armed. Guards commanded him to lay down his guns (and he) complied.”

Colson didn’t survive the ordeal, taking his own life when faced with surrender.

Sampsell would go on to play a pivotal role in the restructuring of the department and the creation of the Department of Corrections in 1944.

What happened to Western Electric?

During World War II, Western Electric designed radar equipment for the war effort. Later, the company expanded into theater sound systems.

When prefixes were added to telephone numbers, people could automatically reach their intended recipient without the need of an operator. By the mid-1960s, operators were essentially obsolete. In 1995, Western Electric was no more.

Those with any information regarding the old switchboard are asked to leave a comment or email the editor at don.chaddock@cdcr.ca.gov.

Sq Telephone Switchboard Undated

A telephone switchboard operator hard at work at San Quentin State Prison, undated.